Einstein's telescope, personal computer memorabilia and an exploding rat
The final round of scientific auctions for 2017 occurred last week and perhaps not so remarkably, there were the usual puzzling results in a market slightly off the boil. The good thing about auctions is that there are always two viewpoints and that last statement can equally be written as "there were some rare scientific documents and instruments to be had at ridiculously reasonable prices." Some of the prices were so reasonable that they will return a handsome profit in the short term when the market comes to its senses.
$432,500 | Albert Einstein's Telescope
We seem to write endlessly about Albert Einstein as science's rock star and the US$10 million his licensed image earns annually, more than 60 years after his death. So famous is the frizzy haired epitome of genius that he is now firmly entrenched in the top-earning dead celebrities, alongside Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Steve McQueen and Marilyn Monroe.
All of which makes the latest piece of Einstein memorabilia even more confounding compared to many previous Einstein memorabilia items.
Einstein's telescope fetched a healthy $432,500 at auction but a two-page letter from Albert Einstein to United States President Franklin D Roosevelt fetched more than $2 million, his pocket watch fetched $352,054 and his leather jacket fetched $145,000.
Several copies of Einstein's Theory of Relativity have fetched stratospheric prices, the most notable being sold for $6,500,000 to raise funds for the American war effort in 1944 (an astonishing amount at the time). Einstein is listed several times in our listing of the 50 most valuable scientific documents of all time.
The telescope is the only Einstein-owned scientific instrument ever to go to auction. The only scientific instrument ever offered by one of a handful of scientists (Newton, Darwin, Crick & Watson ... maybe Freud ... comments?) who will be revered 10,000 years from now for their contribution to mankind's understanding.
$ 372,500 | fully-functional Apple 1 Computer
The general malaise in the collectibles industry continued last week when one of only six known working Apple I computers sold for just US$355,000. While this may seem a lot for a 40-year-old computer, it is the cheapest working Apple I computer to have sold in recent times, with working models having previously fetched $626,967 (€492,000), $664,261 (€513,660) and $905,000, which is the current world record.
The reason that paragraph is in italics is that it was written six months ago when Christies sold the last Apple I to go to auction. This week's Apple 1 was sold by Bonhams for $372,500, but in the grand scheme of things, that's cheap because this is one of the original 50 motherboards assembled in the Jobs family garage for Byte Shop owner Paul Terrell who subsequently furnished them with the wooden cases seen above and sold them for $666.
It is also a fully working model (as per this video) and one of just a handful of Apple I computers in working order today. In comparison to the capabilities of today's computers, the Apple I is rudimentary but it is the original of a machine that changed the world.
"Every computer before the Apple I had that front panel of switches and lights," said Steve Wozniak. "Every computer since has had a keyboard and a screen. That's how huge my idea turned out."
$125,000 | an original "blue box" designed by Steve Wozniak and marketed by Steve Jobs in 1972
In many ways, this machine is almost as significant as the Apple I computer directly above, as it is the first product of the Wozniak and Jobs partnership, the first collaboration of the Lennon & McCartney of the digital age. It is also the first digital "blue box," a tool used by phreakers (phone hackers), making it the first digital hacking tool – another major landmark in another landmark intellectual pursuit, and subsequently a landmark industry.
The full story is well told in the auction description, and there are two quotes from the catalog which highlight the significance of this device. The first is from Steve Jobs, who is quoted in Walter Isaaacson's biography thus: "if it hadn't been for the Blue Boxes, there would have been no Apple. I'm 100 percent sure of that."
The second is from the other co-founder of the most valuable company on Planet Earth, Steve Wozniak. From page 102 of his autobiography: "I swear to this day ... I have never designed a circuit I was prouder of: a set of parts that could do three jobs at once instead of two. I still think it was incredible."
$8,125 | Altair 8800
The Altair 8800 is generally regarded as the machine which kicked off the personal computer revolution in 1975. Made by Micro Instrumentation Telemetry Systems (MITS) of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Altair 8800 was pictured on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine in January 1975 and the nation-wide publicity drove massive interest in the tiny machine that was available only by mail order.
MITS expected to sell just a few hundred of the Altair 8800, but received orders for several thousand units of the $439 kit in the first month and sales ramped up from there.
The Popular Electronics story had a significant unintended consequence in that a pair of Harvard students named Bill Gates and Paul Allen saw the magazine and enthused by the prospects of the computer, contacted MITS with the news that they were working on a programming language for the machine. Allen and Gates famously wrote Altair Basic after MITS expressed interest and the programming language they created kicked off the PC software industry, becoming the first product of a company that would several years later become incorporated as Microsoft.
This pristine specimen of the Altair 8800 sold for $8,125 at Bonhams History of Science & Technology sale.
$ 18,750 | Partially-completed Steve Jobs Job Application
This partially-completed job application from a young Steven Jobs during his time at Reed College in 1972 or 1973, was one of the more expensive lots at the Bonhams History of Science & Technology sale. A fascinating insight into the humble beginnings of one of the most important people in history.
$ 13,750 | 1973 Intel Intellec-8
The Intellec-8 was one of the very first personal computers, produced in very limited numbers by Intel to demonstrate the capabilities of the company's first microchips, and as a development platform for other personal computers. Intel left the PC business shortly thereafter, and famously went on to dominate the microprocessor industry, but this machine from the first year of manufacture would have sold for $2,395 when new.
$ 11,250 | Sir Isaac Newton Autograph Document
Autographs of Sir Isaac Newton are quite valuable, usually selling in excess of $15,000 and having sold for more than $50,000. Strangely, though Albert Einstein's autographs are far more plentiful, they usually command a premium due to his additional celebrity status of having lived more recently, and in a time of mass media.
This 1679 sale contract relating to the Newton ancestral family property was hence quite a bargain as no-one holds a more significant place in scientific history and in the long term the laws of supply and demand must eventually make a Newton autograph more valuable.
$2,125 | Special Operations Executive explosive dummy rat
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a top secret organisation specializing in espionage and sabotage, formed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War 2. It was known to the very few aware of its existence as "Churchill's Secret Army" or the "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare."
This explosive dummy rat was one of the organisation's lesser known initiatives, and is one of 100 units which were created from dead rats stuffed with explosives.
The idea was that local resistance fighters would leave the dead rats inside boiler rooms in occupied France, where they would be thrown into the boiler fire box. Sadly, the first batch sent to France was intercepted and the result was that occupying forces were particularly vigilant from that point onward.
There is no record of a rat bomb having ever exploded in the line of duty, though the Improvised Explosive Device has gone on to become one of the most effective weapons of modern asymmetric warfare, claiming more than half of all American lives lost in Iraq this year.